Babies who were breastfed for at least six months had a 19% lower risk of going on to develop leukaemia in childhood than those who were breastfed for a shorter period or not at all, research found.
Scientists said they made the findings after reviewing 18 different studies, while a separate analysis of 15 studies found that ever being breastfed compared with never being breastfed was associated with an 11% lower risk of childhood leukaemia.
The researchers at the University of Haifa in Israel suggested that more should be done to educate women on the health benefits of breastfeeding, while there should also be efforts to make it easier for women to do so in public.
Leukaemia is the most common cancer diagnosed in childhood and accounts for about 30% of all childhood cancers but little is known about its cause.
According to the Government’s Growing Up In Ireland report, released earlier this year, Ireland has “one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world and easily the lowest rate in Europe”.
It pointed to 2011 figures which showed that only 55.3% of women leaving Irish hospitals following birth were breastfeeding their child, and 47% exclusively, adding, however, that this proportion has increased.
It found that Irish breastfeeding rates are much lower than the UK (76%) and Sweden (over 90%).
The Israeli research is published online in JAMA Pediatrics, with the authors suggesting that several biological mechanisms of breast milk may explain their results, including that it contains many immunologically active components and anti-inflammatory defence mechanisms that influence the development of an infant’s immune system.
“Because the primary goal of public health is prevention of morbidity, healthcare professionals should be taught the potential health benefits of breastfeeding and given tools to assist mothers with breastfeeding, whether themselves or with referrals to others who can help,” the researchers said.
“The many potential preventive health benefits of breastfeeding should also be communicated openly to the general public, not only to mothers, so breastfeeding can be more socially accepted and facilitated.”
Colin Michie, chairman of England’s Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’s Nutrition Committee, welcomed the findings.
“The benefits of breastfeeding to populations of child-ren are well established. Breastfed babies are less likely to contract chest and ear infections, suffer from sickness and diarrhoea, or become obese,” said Dr Miche.
“The important issue is to ensure that women have access to skilled advice and support to help them to initiate and sustain breastfeeding.
“Breastfeeding is a fundamental contributor to better public health; it lays the foundations for better health and has a positive impact on the health and wellbeing of mothers and their babies.”